Coronavirus vaccinations are starting in days but many people may need a dose of truth first.
Scepticism about a new vaccine has been growing throughout the pandemic, thanks to an explosion of online misinformation and fear-mongering.
A recent survey found that one in five British adults may refuse to take the vaccine – even though it is probably our only hope of a return to normality.
Here, Azeem Majeed, professor of primary care and public health at Imperial College London, separates fact from fiction…
A VACCINE PRODUCED SO QUICKLY CAN’T BE SAFE… MOST TAKE 10 YEARS TO BE APPROVED
It is true that most vaccines take many years and even decades to develop, test and approve for public use.
But, says Dr Majeed, a global effort to find a way out of the pandemic has meant scientists have been able to work at record speed, without compromising on standards.
He said: “Covid-19 vaccines have to go through the same process of approval as other vaccines.
“They were developed quickly because funding was made available immediately for their development and studies set up rapidly to test them.
“There have also been a lot of technological developments in recent decades which allow vaccines to be developed much more quickly than in the past.”
I MIGHT BE ALLERGIC TO THE VACCINE BUT I WON’T FIND OUT UNTIL I HAVE IT
“Allergies to vaccines are very rare,” said Dr Majeed. “They are given safely to millions of people every year.”
In fact, the odds you’ll have a severe allergic reaction to a vaccine is about one in 760,000. To put that into perspective, your chance of being struck by lightning next year is higher at one in 700,000.
Most allergic reactions are not because of the antigen itself but some other component of the vaccine, such as egg protein, or rubber from the syringe, if the person is already severely allergic to those.
THERE HAVEN’T BEEN ENOUGH TESTS DONE TO KNOW HOW THE VACCINE AFFECTS PEOPLE WITH UNDERLYING CONDITIONS
Dr Majeed said: “There are many Covid-19 vaccine trials taking place across the world and they are being tested in people with many different characteristics, such as age, sex, ethnicity and medical history. Results thus far show they are safe in all the groups they have been tested in.”
VACCINES CAN OVERLOAD YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM
One commonly-repeated claim which has worried parents is that vaccines can overload the immune system and increase susceptibility to other diseases.
But in 2018, the myth was debunked by American researchers who examined the medical records of more than 900 infants from six hospitals and found no link between vaccines given before the age of two and other infections in the following years.
“Vaccines do not overload your immune system,” said Dr Majeed.
“On the contrary, they generate an immune response that helps reduce the risk of infection, complications and death.”
THE COVID-19 VACCINE COULD GIVE ME CORONAVIRUS
It is true that some vaccines contain the same germs that cause the disease they are immunising against but they have been either killed or weakened to the point they don’t make you sick, while some contain only a part of the disease germ.
In the case of a coronavirus vaccine, “none that are in development contain a live coronavirus,” assured Dr Majeed, “and they therefore can’t give you a coronavirus infection.”
IF EVERYONE AROUND ME IS IMMUNE, THEN I DON’T NEED TO BE VACCINATED
“It’s essential to achieve a high vaccine coverage so that we create herd immunity in the population,” said Dr Majeed.
“If people refuse to be immunised, we will continue to get outbreaks of Covid-19.
“If you decline to be immunised, you may therefore get infected and also infect the people you live with and come into contact with.”
IT’S BETTER TO BE IMMUNISED THROUGH CATCHING THE DISEASE THAN THROUGH VACCINES.
Dr Majeed said: “Vaccines have been shown to be very safe, whereas illnesses such as measles and Covid-19 can lead to serious long-term medical complications. Vaccines have saved many lives and prevented people form being left disabled.”
VACCINATED CHILDREN EXPERIENCE MORE ALLERGIC, AUTOIMMUNE AND RESPIRATORY DISEASES
This is another unfounded claim which has led some parents to delay or withold vaccinations for their children but there is no evidence to support it, said Dr Majeed.
In fact, numerous studies examining many different vaccines have consistently failed to find a link with allergies or autoimmune disease.
“On the contrary, vaccines protect against many diseases and substantially reduce the risk of illness and death in children,” he added.
SOME OF THOSE TAKING PART IN HUMAN TRIALS DIED AFTER BEING INJECTED WITH THE VACCINE
Stories that Dr Eliza Granato, one of the first participants in the human trials of the Oxford vaccine, died shortly after being injected, were shared millions of times.
But the news was false and she later gave a BBC interview saying she was feeling “absolutely fine”.
“Only one death has been reported among people taking part in Covid-19 vaccine trials,” said Dr Majeed. “A careful assessment of this trial did not identify any safety concerns.”
That person was João Pedro Feitosa, a doctor in Brazil who was given the placebo rather than the vaccine and died of Covid-related complications.
THE SWINE FLU VACCINE LEFT PEOPLE WITH SERIOUS SIDE EFFECTS, SO WHY WOULD THIS BE SAFE?
Antivaxxers point to problems with a mass vaccination programme against swine flu in the US in 1976, when the vaccine was later found to increase the chances of people developing Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare neurological disorder.
But Dr Majeed said that, unlike then, development phases of the Covid vaccine have been strictly adhered to.
He added: “The Covid-19 vaccines have been carefully tested in a large number of volunteers and found to be very safe.
“Once they are more widely used, there will be monitoring of people who have received the vaccines to identify any future problems.”
VACCINES CAUSE AUTISM
The idea vaccines cause autism has long been disproved but the claims have recently been doing the rounds again.
Last year, a new study from Denmark, involving more than 657,000 children, found no association between being vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella and autism.
It is the latest of at least 12 other studies which have tried and failed to find a link.
Dr Majeed said: “Vaccines are given to many millions of children globally every year. No evidence has ever been found that vaccines cause autism in children.”
THE SPANISH FLU VACCINE WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR 50MILLION DEATHS
A post shared thousands of times on Facebook claims it was a vaccine, not a virus, which killed 50million people during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
In fact, it was precisely the fact there was no vaccine for Spanish flu that caused it to infect one third of the world’s population and kill so many people.
It was only in the 30s that scientists found influenza was caused by a virus, with the first flu vaccine developed a decade later.
Dr Majeed said: “The deaths from Spanish Flu were caused by a virus, not by a vaccine.”